Category: CIS News

No Debate About It!

A Student’s Big Idea Meets a Professor’s Passion

As a senior at Northridge High School in Tuscaloosa, now C&IS student, Will Henson, decided that his educational experience needed something more. College application deadlines loomed in the future, and he wanted to invest his time in something that would prepare him. Passionate about issues and bold in his defenses, he knew debate would be a transformational next step as a skill and experience. There was only one problem: Northridge High School, like many schools in the Tuscaloosa City School district, did not have a debate team. That didn’t stop Will from pursuing the opportunity.

Dr. Sim Butler (left) and Will Henson


Will gathered a few friends with similar interests and decided to reach out to The University of Alabama.

“I just went through the directory of the Communication Studies department. If anyone could help us, they’d be in there,” said Henson. “Eventually someone put me in touch with Dr. Butler. Three or four emails later he was coming by the school for an interest session.”

What Henson didn’t know was that, at the same time he was looking to form a debate team, Dr. Sim Butler (communication studies) was developing ways to teach debate to UA students beyond traditional competition. To Butler, the idea of his students establishing community partnerships with local middle schools and high schools provides an educational experience while serving a great need across the state of Alabama. And so, the Alabama Debate Society began.

For the UA students involved, the Alabama Debate Society provides an educational experience unlike anything offered on campus. At its core, the group is a team of undergraduate and graduate students who are interested in debate as an activity. What makes it different from a traditional debate team is that, rather than accomplishing their learning outcomes through competition, they seek out nontraditional ways to work on argumentation. First among those methods is coaching students in middle school and high school debate programs.

Students from Bryant High School work with UA student, Sophia Warner (Birmingham), in one of the Alabama Debate Society’s debate incubators.

“It’s experiential learning, based on the idea that our students have to master those skills in order to teach them properly,” said Butler. “UA students get advanced argumentation experience by helping younger students understand argumentation—even if they are not the ones debating.”

As an added bonus, the Alabama Debate Society teaches students how to engage their community, be an advocate for their community and become partners in community-based, participatory research. In other words, UA students master the skills they would learn on a traditional debate team while they are contributing to their community and helping to develop its younger students.

“Most of our off-campus partnerships with schools develop some sort of extracurricular,” said Butler. “The one we do the most is debate, and we refer to these as our ‘debate incubators.’”

Butler’s model pairs qualified UA students with a local school to work on either developing or maintaining an existing debate program. C&IS commits to working several years with a program until it arrives at a level of self-sustainability.

They also reach out to the debate community state-wide to assist programs who may be in peril from circumstances such as coaching changes.

Bryant High School students compete in the Prattville Lion Classic. Two students made the quarterfinals, and two were named finalists.


“A lot of times programs are in between coaches or have a new coach who can’t yet sustain the program at the expected level,” said Butler. “They’ll reach out to us and ask us for help and we try to assist them with these transitions.”


It’s been three years since Will Henson first reached out to Dr. Sim Butler about establishing a debate program at Northridge High School. Now Henson is a junior at UA and helps coach the debate incubators at both Northridge and Bryant High School in Tuscaloosa. He’s now seen the program he helped start years before come full circle.

“I feel a sense of personal responsibility for the team that I helped start at Northridge,” said Henson. “I want to see it continue and thrive, but I also understand that it’s really important because it gives students opportunities that they wouldn’t have otherwise.”

Being a part of a strong debate program equips students with skills that serve them well in college, as well as in the everyday relationships they have in their jobs, communities and homes. Henson understands that the skills learned in his debate experience such as critical analysis, research synthesis and public speaking all serve him well in the college classroom and beyond.

“Having avenues to practice civil discourse and dialogue are missing from the way that we teach advocacy in a forensics education paradigm,” said Butler. “We could use more dialogue. We could use more argumentation…using arguments for discovery.”

In the ideal world, that’s exactly how democracy is supposed to flourish: discovery through argumentation. By having the arguments go up against each other, you can determine where they are strong and where they are weak.

“While there are many co-curricular activities that build transformational skills among students, forensics and debate stand alone in providing an opportunity to develop a student’s ability to understand and articulate arguments from a variety of perspectives,” said Dr. Mark Nelson,
Dean, College of Communication and Information Sciences.

This is one of the key reasons Tuscaloosa City Schools Superintendent, Mike Daria, feels so strongly about reestablishing a thriving debate program in his district. In the national dialogue which occurred following the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in February 2018, Daria was impressed by the presence of student voices on issues surrounding the national gun control debate.

“You saw the skill they used to take a position and argue it articulately on a national stage with passion and research, and I looked at our students and thought, our students can
do that,” said Daria. “Then I looked at what that school system offered, and they have a robust speech and debate program. Their program is established, supported and expected, and you can see the results of that.”

Daria plans for the Tuscaloosa City School System to provide experiences and exposure in speech and debate for every one of its students, from the elementary level all the way to up graduating seniors.

“We want every student who walks across that stage [at graduation] to have the set of skills, talents and abilities to be highly successful after high school,” said Daria. “Whether they are going to college or into a career, those skills will allow them to stand above others, where they can be highly successful. One of the big pieces of that is being a communicator.”


The support from the Tuscaloosa City School Board ensures a lasting relationship between its schools and the Alabama Debate Society. Now that they have the support of the administration, they are not just training students how to debate, they are training teachers to become coaches.
This part of the process is essential for sustaining the program long after UA students and C&IS faculty transition to a new school.

“With the support of the schools we’ve got a major piece, but we’ve got to keep taking kids to competition,” said Henson.  “We will continue to make a difference and increase the scope of that difference as we continue.”

The Alabama Debate Society is bringing debate back to The University of Alabama. It may not look like a traditional, competition debate team, but the UA students involved are learning advanced argumentation while making an impact in the community around them. C&IS alumni are taking pride in supporting these efforts. With the support of the school system, financial contributions from alumni and the time to develop these programs, Tuscaloosa’s middle school and high school students are headed toward a brighter, more successful future where student voices are articulated with passion and research.

C&IS Welcomes New Faculty for 2019-2020

The College of Communication and Information Sciences (C&IS) has an established record of distinguished faculty, whose fingerprints are visible in the excellence of each graduating class. This fall, C&IS introduces nine new faculty members. C&IS welcomes the following new faculty members and celebrates all of the outstanding achievements that are sure to follow:

Dr. Damion Waymer, Department Chair, Advertising & Public Relations
Dr. Damion Waymer Department Chair, Advertising & Public Relations

Shaheen Kanthawala
Dr. Shaheen Kanthawala Assistant Professor, Journalism and Creative Media

Kyle Holland, Book Arts Instructor and Studio Manager, School of Library and Information Studies
Kyle Holland Book Arts Instructor and Studio Manager, School of Library and Information Studies


Hengyi Fu, Assistant Professor, School of Library and Information Studies
Dr. Hengyi Fu Assistant Professor, School of Library and Information Studies

Jiyoung Li, Assistant Professor, Journalism and Creative Media
Dr. Jiyoung Lee Assistant Professor, Journalism and Creative Media

Dr. Sean Sadri, Assistant Professor, Journalism and Creative Media
Dr. Sean Sadri Assistant Professor, Journalism and Creative Media

Jared George, Lecturer, Advertising and Public Relations
Jared George Lecturer, Advertising and Public Relations

Ben Pyle, Assistant Professor, Communication Studies
Ben Pyle Assistant Professor, Communication Studies

Ginger Jolly, Instructor, Journalism and Creative Media
Ginger Jolly Instructor, Journalism and Creative Media

Starting in January 2020:

Dr. Seoyeon Kim Assistant Professor, Advertising and Public Relations

Honoring Nancy Parker

The University of Alabama College of Communication and Information Sciences honors the memory of our beloved Board member and Fox 8 journalist Nancy Parker.
“The College and our Board of Visitors mourns the loss of Nancy and sends our prayers and condolences to her family, friends and colleagues,” said Mark Nelson, Dean of the College of Communication and Information Sciences. “Nancy used her time and talent to give back to our community through her service and unwavering support. She was passionate about mentoring rising journalists and teaching them how to tell meaningful stories. She became a close friend to all who worked with her as a member of our board.”
In 1988, Nancy graduated from the College of Communication and Information Sciences with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism. In 2015, she was honored with the College’s Bert Bank Distinguished Service Award and joined the College’s Board of Visitors in 2017. She frequently connected with students as a mentor sharing her experiences, advice and her fun-loving spirit.
“Nancy was a joy to have on our board and a remarkable professional,” said Nelson. “Our college is better because of her support and guidance. We will miss her deeply.”
For more information, visit FOX 8’s story here.

Capstone Agency: How UA’s Student-Run Firm Became the Best in the Country


In 2008, Teri Henley was handed a thin, manila folder of old client leads and inherited a team of twelve undergraduate students. She was tasked with reinventing Alabama’s student-run communications firm in a way that would provide students a platform to build their portfolios, interact with clients, deliver sustainable campaigns and gain insight into the communication industry. In just ten years, that firm, Capstone Agency, has grown to 115 members representing all five C&IS undergraduate majors and has twice been named the best student-run firm in the nation.

If you look around Teri Henley’s office, her commitment to excellence is displayed clearly by the number of plaques, medals and awards that decorate the walls. She describes herself as “award driven,” and it shows in how she uses awards to motivate her students. After all, at The University of Alabama, people like to win.

Teri Henley oversees production for one of Capstone Agency’s client teams.

“The first national PRSSA conference I attended, I sat there through the awards banquet and Alabama didn’t get anything,” Henley said. “Like Scarlet O’Hara, I swore—as God is my witness—we would never go home empty handed again.”

And she was right; the agency wouldn’t go home empty handed for long. In 2011, competing against professionals on a national level, they won the Public Relations Society of America’s (PRSA) Silver Anvil Award of Excellence for LessThanUThink, an anti-binge drinking campaign. A National Chapter Award for University Service would follow in 2012. Then, in both 2016 and 2018, PRSSA named Capstone Agency the Best Student-Run Firm in the country, an award which evaluates firms based on their agency operations, billable hours, client work, client revenue, professional development opportunities for members, agency culture and pro bono work. In the past three years, Capstone Agency has also been awarded PRSSA’s Best Campaign (2x), Best Tactic (2x), and served as PRSSA National’s Agency of Record. National recognition at this scale and with this consistency makes Capstone Agency a model for other student-run firms to emulate, study and implement at their schools. In a matter of only six years, the agency went from empty-handed to best firm.

Without a doubt, Henley has been instrumental in the sustained success of Capstone Agency, but she would place herself far outside the spotlight; she says her job is to “sit back and watch the magic happen.” According to Henley, the “secret sauce” of Capstone Agency has two main ingredients. First, agency members are constantly thinking about the next person to fill their shoes and are not “allowed” to graduate until they’ve replicated themselves. The second ingredient is that Capstone Agency is truly led by students. The agency selects its own membership and leadership, produces its own client work and its members hold each other accountable. The students take ownership and set high goals.

Capstone Agency students brainstorm creative solutions during Createathon, their 24-hour, pro-bono marketing marathon.
Capstone Agency students preview client work for one of the agency’s 10 clients. 
Capstone Agency students take a break to stretch it out during Createathon.

“They totally run themselves,” said Henley. “They mentor each other and look out for each other, because they don’t want the agency falling apart after they graduate; they want it to keep growing and keep getting better.”

The results speak for themselves. Last year alone, Capstone Agency completed work for eight clients across disciplines, securing local and national media coverage, managing more than $65,000 in client budgets and logging more than 12,700 hours of work.

“The students in Capstone Agency are preparing themselves for their careers after graduation,” said Dr. Joseph Phelps, Chair of the Department of Advertising and Public Relations. “We’re talking about professional-caliber work and an experience that can’t be duplicated elsewhere.”

“Capstone Agency offers me an unmatched experience working with real clients in a functional agency environment. Contributing alongside driven, passionate students from different backgrounds challenges me to learn about all areas of the public relations field, and seeing campaigns from ideation to final evaluation enables me to build a breadth and depth of transferable skills,” said Kathleen McManus, assistant firm director from Chicago.

At PRSSA’s National Conference, it’s now common to see other universities’ public relations students approaching Capstone Agency team members, asking what their secret is and how they continue to produce results. Ten years ago, Henley saw untapped potential in what a firm at The University of Alabama could be and, in that, an opportunity to become something truly special. It’s hard to imagine that only a decade ago, Capstone Agency was an unaffiliated group of about a dozen students who occasionally gathered to do pro-bono work for organizations on campus.

“I basically told them I wasn’t interested in doing that,” Henley said. “I asked them, ‘What do you think of doing this instead? Because if you want to do something bigger, something strategic, you can be a whole lot more.’”

Henley may not be immortalized in bronze alongside names such as Stallings, Saban and Bryant, but her commitment to excellence, her vision for something more and her empowerment of student voices have a pluck and grit all of their own, ensuring that she will be ever remembered as one of Alabama’s legendary leaders. And if she has her way, the student awards will keep on coming.

To learn more about Capstone Agency, visit their website at or check them out on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Brooks and Chilcutt Publish ‘Engineered to Speak’

Dr. Alexa Chilcutt and Dr. Adam Brooks, directors of The University of Alabama’s Public Speaking Program and The Speaking Studio have partnered with IEEE, the world’s largest technical professional organization and Wiley Press to author the newest Professional Series title, Engineered to Speak: Helping You Create and Deliver Engaging Technical Presentations.

The past five years, Chilcutt and Brooks have designed and administered more than 100 professional development workshops for corporations and continuing education departments nationwide, teaching a vast skillset of transferable communication skills. The text is designed to pair their approachable workshop style with the experiences of dozens of technical professionals to teach oral communication, public speaking and visual aid design skills to a STEM audience.

“What we’re seeing across the globe is a large conversation about how quickly we’re advancing in technologies and the ways in which this is going to fundamentally transform our country and the world,” said Brooks. “However, many of these brilliant minds—scientists, engineers, software developers—lack the skills and knowledge to effectively communicate their ideas to any audience.”

The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) has noticed and has taken action. As the accrediting body of more than 4,000 programs in 32 countries worldwide, ABET updated its 2018-19 criteria for Accrediting Engineering Technology Programs. The update includes, “an ability to apply written, oral, and graphical communication in both technical and non‐technical environments; and an ability to identify and use appropriate technical literature.”

Chilcutt and Brooks’ book is designed to promote these outcomes. All the concepts, assessments, and exercises within the book are aimed at building oral and visual communication skills. In addition, the Supplemental Chapter includes a complete 10-module curriculum with lesson plans and assessments.

“Engineering curriculum is intense and extremely dense. It is difficult for them to squeeze in a course devoted to communication. Now, according to ABET they are required  to incorporate learning outcomes that ensure  proficient communication skills.,” said Chilcutt. “We have specifically written the book to include a 10-module  curriculum based on our experience teaching the aeronautical and mechanical engineer Research Experience for Undergraduate (REU) program funded by the NSF here at UA since 2011. This will allow  engineering programs to drop learning modules into existing curriculum.”

Chilcutt and Brooks interviewed lead engineers and technical professionals around the world, ranging from the heads of research teams at NASA to civil engineers serving small municipalities. They incorporated their stories and strategies into the text in a way that speaks directly to today’s technical professional.

“Our hope is to plant the flag as the first communication professionals to have authored a book and created a partnership with a publisher specializing in STEM publications like Wiley Press,” said Chilcutt.

The book became available online on Amazon or through the Wiley IEEE Press Professional Series site August 2, 2019, and is currently as Amazon’s #1 listing in the category “New Releases in Engineering.”

SLIS Partners with American Archive of Public Broadcasting for Digital Archiving Project

The University of Alabama’s School of Library and Information Studies (SLIS) will play a major role in an ambitious nationwide preservation effort to digitize media content. Through its partnership with the American Archive of Public Broadcasting (AAPB), SLIS will host four preservation fellowships during the fall semester. Fellows will work throughout the semester at one of three public broadcasting stations to digitize and preserve at-risk media. The stations are the Center for Public Television (CPT) at The University of Alabama, WSRE in Pensacola, Florida, and WCVE in Richmond, Virginia.

“By tapping in to the expertise of professional archivists, we are preparing our fellows for the critical work of protecting local media and ensuring that these records of our past are accessible in the future,” said Dr. Jim Elmborg, Director of SLIS. “We look forward to seeing what gems are revealed at CPT, WSRE and WCVE over the course of the semester.”

According to AAPB, a collaboration between the Library of Congress and WGBH, a Boston-area public media broadcaster, the work the fellows complete will be incorporated into the AAPB database at the end of the semester.

“Public media stations have created community-focused, enriching programs for decades. Each of these programs is a unique snapshot that reflects what mattered to communities at a given time and is a rich historical resource for stations, scholars and the public,” said Karen Cariani, Director of WGBH’s Media Library and Archives. “We’re thrilled to help guide the next generation of archivists and for AAPB to serve as a home for these programs from CPT, WSRE and WCVE.”

Fellows will begin the program with an immersive training hosted by SLIS, led by WGBH Media Library and Archives staff and Jackie Jay, a digitization expert from Bay Area Video Coalition, from August 5-8. At the host stations, fellows will work with station staff to identify programs that are most valuable to the station and currently residing on at-risk and obsolete videotape formats. According to AAPB, each fellow will catalog and digitize up to 60 hours of this content. Fellows will be supported by AAPB archivists and funding from SLIS.

The School of Library and Information Studies is a part of the College of Communication and Information Sciences (C&IS) at The University of Alabama. To learn more about C&IS, visit

Disaster Reporting Beauregard

At approximately 2 p.m. on March 3, 2019, an F-4 tornado killed 23 people in Lee county, Alabama before continuing on into southwest Georgia. As one of the 12 tornadoes which touched down in central and southeast Alabama that day, it would become the deadliest tornado in the country since April 2011.

[Click here to view Dr. Clark’s latest project, Disaster Reporting Beauregard]

Before the week was over, Drs. Chandra Clark and Michael Bruce (Department of Journalism and Creative Media) were on the ground in Beauregard, Alabama interviewing first responders, reporters, and other news crew team members as they held news conferences, interviewed tornado victims and reported from the disaster zone. Clark and Bruce gathered additional video footage from various television stations in Alabama and Georgia including news coverage from that day and weather forecasts leading up to the tornado outbreak.

Clark compiled the videos and edited them together as a tool which can be used in the classroom to help illustrate the teamwork required in covering major weather events. The process starts with the meteorologists’ warnings and the decisions management makes to break into normal programming to alert the audience to the threat of disaster and carries on through producers, anchors, and reporters who manage the live reports and push notifications on social media as the situation unfolds. The completed video (found here) helps students understand the role of reporters in the field when covering disasters.

“It’s only through a one-on-one internship with a reporter covering a disaster or a major breaking news story that students can learn and apply how to multitask communication with managers, producers, promotions and social media teams while they are gathering content to produce for a packaged or live report,” said Clark. “We hope this video helps students have a better understanding of the reporters’ role in the field covering disasters from the reporters and videographers who do it daily.”

Clark’s reputation as an educator and one of the producers of the “First Informers” video series helped in communication with news directors in negotiating footage from their station. The “First Informers” video series has worked in conjunction with the National Association of Broadcasters and the Broadcast Education Association to document local broadcasting in several notable severe storm events over the past 8 years. These documentaries include the 2011 EF4 tornado in Tuscaloosa, the 2011 EF5 tornado in Joplin, the 2012 hurricane known as “Superstorm Sandy,” a 2013 EF5 tornado which struck Moore, Oklahoma, Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in 2017 and Hurricanes Florence and Michael in 2018.

Behind the Scenes

How a Student-Produced Film is Changing Public Perception

Juvenile idiopathic arthritis is a debilitating disease affecting thousands of children across the country. Telecommunication and film student, Joshua Cohen, is using his film, “M I A” to raise awareness about JIA and cast a light on this invisible disease.

Filmmaking has an incredible ability to change the sentiments surrounding a topic. The picture, lighting and audio affect the senses, bringing audiences to a place they have not been and compelling them to consider perspectives and experiences that, to them, are foreign and unexplored. Senior telecommunication and film major from Atlanta, Georgia, Joshua Cohen, understands the power of film to move people and sway public thought. He wants to use his film, “M I A,” to change the world.

Cohen and his JCM 437 production crew with Lily Champion, lead actress in his student film, “M I A”.

“M I A” tells the story of a young girl named Mia, who is navigating life with a painful and debilitating disease: juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA). As the film describes, juvenile arthritis is an umbrella term for a number of childhood diseases affecting the joints and musculoskeletal system. JIA specifically includes symptoms such as muscle and soft tissue tightening, bone erosion, joint misalignment and changes in growth patterns. To make matters worse, children suffering from JIA are often overlooked or marginalized. That’s why Cohen titled his film, “M I A,” as in “missing in action,” a play on the character’s name and her social standing.

As a story, “M I A” is deeply personal to Cohen. More than one member of his family has been diagnosed with diseases in the arthritis family. Although in retrospect Cohen’s mom has been battling a disease similar to Mia for most of her life, the disease became challenging and life altering about 15 years ago, forcing her to undergo numerous, regular chemotherapy treatments and surgeries. Cohen witnessed the disease attack his mother’s body first-hand, which served as personal motivation to tell Mia’s story and use it as a vehicle for awareness and change.

“I really wanted to get the story out there because there’s not enough awareness about this disease,” said Cohen. “When I asked my film crew what they thought arthritis was, they thought it was when people had difficulty texting with their thumbs and having stiff joints. That’s understandable, but it can also be life threatening and life altering.”

In the film, Mia’s physical limitations isolate her from her peers and force her to miss out on many of the activities other children can easily enjoy. Mia’s story captures her good and bad days, her frustration with routine doctor visits and injections, the emotional toll shared by her family and, ultimately, her motivation to move beyond her diagnosis and present herself in her own way.

“The film shows what it’s like to live with this disease from Mia’s point of view,” said Cohen. “It shows what Mia can and can’t do. At the beginning, she lets this disease limit her, but by the end of the film, it doesn’t define her anymore.”

Because the disease is rare and hard to diagnose, increased awareness amplifies the importance of funding and research to treat and improve the quality of life for those who suffer from JIA. It would also help those who suffer to better understand their symptoms and seek appropriate help from a physician. These are just a few of the ways Cohen wants “M I A” to make a lasting impact.

Making “M I A”

For students enrolled in JCM 437: Scene Directing, the script is the starting point. Students come to the class with a script ready to workshop and revise. The editing process exposes weaknesses while strengthening attributes in the plot, dialogue and character profiles.

Above: Behind-the-scenes photos of the “M I A” production crew which included C&IS students Wynter Childers, Joshua Cohen, Malcolm Driscoll, Lydia Eichler, Megan Farrell, Sam Gay, Tristan Hallman, Rhianna Israni, Wade Scanlan and Sam Sheriff.

“I knew Joshua had a really good story to tell,” said Maya Champion, Cohen’s instructor for JCM 437. “In this class, these films are usually the first films students produce, and they’re meant to be stepping stones for a career.”

For the writer, director and production team, JCM 437 provides students an opportunity to create stories in a variety of different roles as part of a film crew. When Cohen selected his crew, he found his director of photography in C&IS senior Rhianna Israni of Lakeville, Minn. While Cohen directed the actors and drew out their emotions in the scenes, Israni was lining up the shot, mapping out camera movements and adjusting the lighting.

“Every film you work on improves your skills,” said Israni. “You learn a lot from getting new experiences. This was the first time I ever shot under water. It was a lot more difficult than I thought it would be, but it turned out really cool.”

Before filming even one scene, the team ensured that they meticulously mapped out every second of filming down to the last minute. With every shot scheduled back to back, moving from location to location, the crew remarkably wrapped up filming for the entire project in just two days. To pull this off, the entire team had to know exactly where to be and what to do in every step of the production.

“With script writing and everything else, the process lasts a whole semester,” said Cohen. “So, it’s rare to get everything done in two days and not have any pick-up shots.”

The student team was modeled after a professional production crew in the film industry. As director, Cohen tasked his peers with responsibilities in various categories: lighting, production design and sound, to name a few. Cohen and Israni worked tirelessly together, shoulder to shoulder, to produce one final video.

“We watched through all the shots and talked. It was a collaboration,” said Israni. “He’d like some shots because of the acting, and I would make a case sometimes for a different shot because the camera had a smoother angle.”

As Cohen’s instructor, Champion is proud of the way the film artistically tells Mia’s story. But for Cohen, the project was much more, and his aspirations fly high beyond his final grade. In the end, he wants to have changed public perception.

Using a Film to Raise Awareness

Twelve-year-old Lily Champion is like many kids her age. Her favorite animal is a shark, and she can’t decide if she wants to be an actress, a marine biologist, a journalist or some variation of all three. Diagnosed with JIA at a young age, in many ways, Mia’s story is Lily’s story—sitting on the bench while her friends at school play during recess, feeling marginalized and ignored. She has lived the experiences Cohen’s film captures, and her struggles equipped her to play it out on screen.

Cohen’s production utilized some of the most cutting-edge technology to film on playgrounds, in swimming pools and medical exam rooms, to piece together a final cut.

“When we first told Lily about the story, she wanted to be in it,” said Cohen. “Then when we showed her the script, she read through it and said, ‘Wow. I did all these things. I had these symptoms.’”

Films showcasing actors and actresses with disabilities are rare; rarer still are films whose actors and actresses portray their own disability on the screen. Casting Lily to play Mia and telling her story alongside the film gives JIA a young, relatable face, personalizing the experience in such a way that audiences feel Mia’s struggles and are motivated to be agents of awareness and change themselves.

The awareness efforts for JIA are limited when compared to other, more widespread diseases. Cohen is using “M I A” to rewrite the script on this disease. In a tangible sense, this dream of Cohen’s is already a reality. His film already screened at Camp M.A.S.H. (Make Arthritis Stop Hurting), a camp run by Children’s Hospital of Alabama. Now, Cohen wants to extend his reach even further by permitting physicians to screen the film in their offices and submitting the film to various film festivals across the country.

“Once you put it on the festival circuit, you can attract attention from people who want to develop it into a feature script,” said Champion. “Then Josh can use his student film as a stepping stone to something bigger.”

Bringing “M I A” to a larger audience would mean pivotal conversations are taking place about the perception of and treatment for JIA. “M I A” gives a voice to young people all over the country who exist in a daily struggle with a seemingly invisible disease. More than that, “M I A” gives them confidence that their disease does not have to define and rule over their circumstances.

From the first day of JCM 437, Cohen’s dream has been to use his gifts as a director and filmmaker to make a difference in the lives of children like Mia. With the passion Cohen brings from his personal experiences and the hard work of the student film crew, “M I A” has unlimited potential to change the conversation, and for film students like Cohen, these educational experiences are invaluable.

Plank Center Sponsors Nationwide Communication Survey

The first study to examine the state of public relations in Canada and the United States found that building and maintaining trust is the most crucial issue facing the profession. The North American Communication Monitor (NACM) conducted by The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations at The University of Alabama disclosed key trends and challenges facing the communication profession. Some highlights include:

  • Fake news affects the profession, but many organizations are not prepared to identify and manage it.
  • Top communication leaders are involved in organizational decision making, but that power is not shared with those lower in the hierarchy, especially women.
  • The major threat to job engagement is a lack of performance feedback and recognition, with a significant gender gap.
  • Everyone is stressed, but the sources of work stress vary.
  • Women and men rate their social media and knowledge management skills differently.

The results are based on responses from 1,020 communication professionals working in different types of organizations (255 in Canada and 765 in the United States). The sample achieved a balanced gender split (50% men and 50% women) for accurate comparisons. The average age of participants was 46.0 years.

Dr. Karla Gower, director of The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations, said, “Our goal with this study was to assess the state of the public relations field in North America and identify gaps, or opportunities to enrich the development of communication leaders. If we know where the gaps are, we can work to close them and to strengthen the overall quality of our profession’s leadership—a crucial strategic asset.”

The study, which joins existing Communication Monitors in Europe, Latin America and Asia-Pacific, explored diverse topics, including fake news and strategies to deal with it, top issues for the profession in the next three years, the role of providing information to support decision making, leaders’ performance, and professionals’ job engagement, trust in their organization, job satisfaction, work stress, and social media skills and management knowledge.

Dr. Bryan H. Reber, professor at the University of Georgia and lead researcher of NACM, said: “The Plank Center has embraced the opportunity to join a truly global network of researchers who regularly take the pulse of communication professionals to identify trends and opportunities. The North American Communication Monitor provides statistically reliable data to demonstrate professionals’ opinions and concerns and uses a nearly identical survey instrument as do the European, Latin American, and Asia-Pacific Communication Monitors. As a result, we are able to compare more than 6,000 responses across regions and cultures, the largest global data set for our profession.”

Fake news is a prominent issue but organizations lack processes to identify and manage it

Communication professionals agree fake news has become one of the most prominent issues in public discourse. More than half of surveyed professionals (57.7%) give attention to the on-going debate about fake news and consider it a much-debated topic in their country (68.2%). Results indicate governmental organizations across North America are particularly affected by fake news, with 20.9% being affected multiple times and 10.1% being affected once.

However, despite the high levels of awareness and attention to the debate about fake news, the level of relevance of fake news to the professionals’ daily work, and their concerns about it, are generally low. When it comes to identifying potential fake news, a substantial percentage of respondents (42.6%) said their organizations mainly rely on individual competencies and experience. Few organizations have in place policies, technical systems and processes to detect and manage fake news and misinformation.

Nearly half of the organizations (46.3%) do not share decision making with employees or members

The majority of surveyed professionals (71.9%) agree their top communication leader is actively involved in the organization’s decision making (78.1%) and demonstrates a strong ethical orientation to guide actions (76.7%). However, shared decision-making power receives the lowest rating across various types of organizations. Women rate the shared decision-making power significantly lower than men. A similar perceptual gap is identified along the line of hierarchy: Top communication leaders rate shared decision-making power significantly higher than team leaders and team members.

 The major threat to job engagement is a lack of performance feedback and recognition, with a significant gender gap

The job engagement level is relatively high: 62.8% report they are engaged in their job. More than eight in 10 of surveyed professionals know what is expected of them at work (86.0%), and are in a positive environment where fellow employees are committed to quality work (81.3%). Professionals also said they have the opportunity to do what they can do best every day (79.1%) and their opinions count at work (75.3%). However, some are frustrated by the lack of feedback about their performance on the job (24.6%) and lack of recognition for doing good work (15.4%).

Though nearly three-quarters of communication professionals are satisfied with their job, the gender gap is big. Women (60.8%) report a much lower level of job satisfaction compared to men (70.2%).

Sources of work stress vary

One-third of surveyed professionals acknowledge they feel tense and stressed during a normal workday. Generally, the top three sources of stress are limited growth or advancement opportunities (34.3%), a too-heavy workload (33.6%), and information overload (33.3%). Top communication leaders are most stressed by information overload, team leaders by work overload, and team members by their lack of opportunity for growth and advancement. Women are most stressed by lack of advancement opportunities and heavy workload. Men are most stressed by information overload and being constantly available via email, text and phone.

Women and men rate their social media and knowledge management skills differently

Men and women see their knowledge and skill sets differently when coping with the digital evolution and social media. Women are more confident about delivering messages via social media (68.8%), identifying social media trends (55.7%), and setting up social media platforms (51.2%). Men are more confident of their understanding of the legal framework for social media (38.0%) and using algorithms to run analytics (35.7%).

When it comes to general management skills, men are significantly more confident, compared to women, about their abilities in strategic positioning, such as analyzing overall organizational goals, scenario planning, and linking communication to business agendas. Men also report higher scores on managing human and financial resources.

Dr. Juan Meng, associate professor at the University of Georgia and lead analyst of NACM, said: “The depths and the variety of investigated topics presented by this year’s NACM help us better understand the communication industry in North America. More importantly, our rich results will deliver crucial insights to inform effective practice for communication professionals at all levels, from top leaders to team leaders and team members, as they all need to tackle these challenges now or in the near future.”

To download and read the NACM 2018-2019 full report, please visit the Plank Center’s website.


About North American Communication Monitor 2018-2019

The North American Communication Monitor (NACM) 2018-2019 is a biennial study organized and sponsored by The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations. The NACM is part of the Global Communication Monitor series. As the largest regular global study in the field of public relations and strategic communication, the Global Communication Monitor series aims at stimulating and promoting the knowledge and practice of strategic communication and communication management globally. The series covers more than 80 countries with similar surveys conducted in Asia-Pacific, Europe and Latin America.

About the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations

The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations is the leading international resource working to support students, educators and practitioners who are passionate about the public relations profession by developing and recognizing outstanding diverse public relations leaders, role models and mentors. Founded in 2005, the Center is named in honor of Betsy Plank, the “First Lady” of PR. Betsy’s legacy and vision continues on in the Center’s programs and initiatives to advance the profession and public relations education. For more information, please visit

Study Report

Results of the NACM 2018-2019 will be published as a PDF report and as a booklet:

Meng, J. Reber, B. H., Berger, B. K., Gower, K. K., & Zerfass, A. (2019). North American Communication Monitor 2018-2019. Tracking trends in fake news, issues management, leadership performance, work stress, social media skills, job satisfaction and work environment. Tuscaloosa, AL: The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations.

ISBN (paperback): 978-0-578-50179-6

ISBN (electronic): 978-0-578-50180-2

For more information about the NACM 2018-2019, please visit

For more information about the Global Communication Monitor series, please visit

Hudson Nuckolls Wins Munson Foundation Grant for Black Warrior Riverkeeper Internship

The Curtis and Edith Munson Foundation has awarded Hudson Nuckolls, a rising senior studying public relations at The University of Alabama, a scholarship grant to intern at Black Warrior Riverkeeper in Birmingham, Alabama, for the summer.

Two years ago, the Munson Foundation supplied UA’s Advertising and Public Relations department with a three-year grant awarding scholarships to Black Warrior Riverkeeper interns in 2017 and 2018.

“Thanks to the generosity of the Munson Foundation, it’s the largest scholarship that the APR department awards,” said Joseph Phelps, APR department chair.

Nuckolls, a native of Nashville, Tennessee, was chosen by the department to receive the honor in 2019.  He also serves as firm director for Capstone Agency,the nation’s top student-run communications firm.

“I’m thankful for this unique opportunity to use the communication skills I’ve learned at UA to help Black Warrior Riverkeeper protect residents and wildlife all over the Black Warrior River’s 17-county watershed. As an out of state student, it’s important to me that I give back to a community that has made me feel at home during my time at UA,” Nuckolls said.

As a member of Waterkeeper Alliance, Black Warrior Riverkeeper patrols waterways, responds to citizen complaints, enforces environmental laws, and educates the public. The organization also engages partner groups and individuals in its efforts. Last year, 485 volunteers donated 4,710 hours of community service through Black Warrior Riverkeeper’s projects. The majority of those volunteers were students from The University of Alabama.

“We strive to make the Munson internship an exciting, valuable and well-rounded experience for the intern each summer,” said Charles Scribner, executive director of Black Warrior Riverkeeper. “At the same time, we benefit tremendously from new communications tactics we learn from the nationally-ranked UA PR program’s top students.”

Black Warrior Riverkeeper’s mission is to protect and restore the Black Warrior River and its tributaries. The citizen-based nonprofit organization promotes clean water for the sake of public health, recreation and wildlife habitat throughout the Black Warrior River watershed.